Saturday, 22 August 2015

Re-thinking public funding

A visit along the Clywedog Trail today got me thinking about how public money is often squandered on projects that cannot be sustained.

The Clywedog Trail runs seven miles from Minera lead mines

along the river Clywedog to Nant Mill, Coedpoeth

past the Bersham industrial heritage centre and renovated ironworks

 before winding its way past Erddig and on to King's Mill at Abenbury.

It's a wonderful trail for walkers and has some fantastic industrial heritage sites, including what many argue is the cradle of the industrial revolution in sleepy Bersham. Iron mad John Wilkinson developed world-leading industrial processes at the site, exporting cannon disguised as water pipes to France and paving the way for the rapid expansion of the Wrecsam area as an industrial centre. 

But what the above centres - lovingly restored and re-opened to the public in the 1980s and 1990s - have in common are that they are all now closed. 

Cutbacks to council budgets have meant that non-statutory services such as leisure and library services (under which these sat) were first to go. That's a matter of great regret because our history and heritage are important. Bersham was the last to close last year - allegedly to save £58,000.

All these sites were restored at great cost through public funding - through the Welsh Office, the WDA, the EU and latterly the Welsh Government. Like so many of these projects, the funding is usually to fund building work rather than running costs and is usually time limited so that such funds run out after three years or so.

Over-optimistic business plans, often run up hurriedly to meet artificial deadlines imposed by the grant providers keen to get rid of funding before year's end, are concocted. These show inflated visitor numbers and spending in the cafe and shop paying for staff and ongoing maintenance. The tight limitations on spending often mean great extravagance on the build when some would have been better kept for running costs.

Another more recent project that springs to mind locally is the "tarting up" of King Street, with nice new lighting and paving. The limitations of the scheme - which cost £1.6 million - are apparent. Half the shops in King Street are now closed and there was no way to spend any of that money on assisting local enterprises to either stay in business or open a new business. The money had to be spent on the paving and lighting. 

By most measures, this is a waste of money and merely reinforces the view that "the Council" and/or "the Government" hasn't got a clue when it comes to spending public money. And while there's always a need to ensure that public money is spent wisely and within strict perameters, these artificial pots of money create a race among "grant chasers". This is a curious body of people that exists in councils, universities and many voluntary/charitable groups. They scurry from pot to pot trying to justify their particular projects within those strict perameters, hoping to squirrel it away.

Unfortunately there is little thought beyond the moment of attaining the prize. There is little thought of what will be the fate of King Street in five or 10 years' time because the caravan has moved on and there's another pot of money to exploited. Among them will be the Vibrant and Viable Places to rejuvenate Wrecsam town centre. At first sight, it's encouraging to see a large slice of money coming to the town - £10.5m of public money to be boosted by private finance to £25m. However the money is to be spent partly on providing new housing. The remainder will go on developing the arts sector and creating new businesses.

 It remains to be seen how that pans out - Wrecsam has a lively creative arts industry that needs a focus and help. Entertainment in its broadest sense is the way forward for the town centre as it seeks to reinvent itself in this online/out-of-town shopping era. 

But is there anyone thinking beyond the next grant pot and how Wrecsam will look in 10 or 20 years' time? Or will we see more Minera Lead Mines, Nant Mills, Bershams and Kings Mills?

* Bersham is particularly close to my heart as I worked there on a glorified YTS scheme (MSC) back in the mid 80s.


Anonymous said...

The reading of should also be a must read for ALL nationalists, he investigates irregularities in the use of public funding.

Phil Phillips said...

Let's not forget the Bridge Street regeneration scheme of 2002 which has blighted Penybryn. The very same people regenerated King Street. They now have their eyes on Bodhyfryd and bridge Street again. God help us.